Music, patience and compassion are a far cry from the discipline-maxim ‘Action-Reaction,’ barked by the headmaster of Fond de l’Etang (Rock Bottom), the boarding school for ‘difficult boys.’ It’s 1948, and punishment is administered with a steady, consistent hand: lashings over a desk, the turning of key to lock a door, or the passing of bucket and mop for a week’s floor-cleaning. Unsurprisingly, the boys continue to behave badly and the teachers are miserable.
Then one afternoon, the school’s new supervisor Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot) arrives at the gates for the first time. Snow is on the ground and we hear Bruno Coulais’s score as a magical choral ‘la-la’ which carries a smooth, Hollywood-familiar ‘otherness’: Clément is presented as a gift, a gentle force of change.
Clément is a gentle, slightly maudlin man, who, if in overalls, would resemble a mechanic with a healthy appetite for foie gras. He’s also an unemployed music teacher and composer, and is somewhat scared of the unpredictable boys and their fierce headmaster. Refusing to show it, he talks to the boys as equals, with authority and humour; but more significantly, he starts a school choir.
There’s a layer of marzipan to Les Choristes that nudges it into the Hollywood genre of inspiring-teachers-who-change-the-lives-of-disadvantaged/miserable-minors. Coulais’ score is edited and mixed to conduct our emotions, the film is coloured with greys and oatmeals, hues of a lack-lustre life; and, of course, it holds at its heart the belief that even the ‘challenging’ child can succeed. A film best watched on a rainy day with a slice of cake in our hands, and thinking, ‘yes, there is hope.’
Yet, Les Choristes is more than sailing sentiment. It is about status and disappointment. Director and writer, Christophe Barratier, turns each convention of the genre, just enough, to surprise us. He doesn’t hammer the obvious benefits of singing in a choir, but shows a realistic (and poetic) view of human nature.
Status is clearly drawn by the fact Clément is employed as a supervisor, not a teacher which is the role for which he is properly qualified. Clément remains the underdog throughout his time at the school, and true to life, this doesn’t change, despite nurturing the musical talent of the boys. Equally realistic, is the headmaster (a superbly brittle performance by François Berléand). There’s a brief softening when he joins a football game with the boys, but otherwise he stays hardened and wearied by his profession.
Jugnot turns a tender performance as Clément; he is sweet and vulnerable, a grown-up reflection of the lives of the boys he conducts. Most memorable is his aching disappointment after he counsels the beautiful single mother (Marie Bunel) of his gifted chorister (Jean-Baptiste Maunier) to find love. Clément hoped she’d choose him, of course, but she announces she’s fallen in love with someone else. His pain is worn silently, but with facial expressions as articulate as the exquisite score.
Director: Christophe Barratier
Worth knowing: Les Choristes is an adaptation of the 1945 film La Cage aux Rossignols (A Cage of Nightingales) directed by Jean Dréville.
It’s a story based on ‘Ker Goat,’ an education centre (situated on a disused farm in Brittany) during WW2. It was for ‘delinquent’ children, a ‘prison without barriers,’ and also established a successful choir.